COINTELPRO (a portmanteau derived from COunter INTELligence PROgram) was a series of covert, and at times illegal, projects conducted by the United States FBI aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting and disrupting domestic political organizations.
Centralized operations under COINTELPRO officially began in August 1956 with a program designed to « increase factionalism, cause disruption and win defections » inside the Communist Party U.S.A. (CPUSA).
FBI records show that COINTELPRO resources targeted groups and individuals that the FBI deemed subversive, including anti-Vietnam War organizers, activists of the Civil Rights Movement or Black Power movement (e.g. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Panther Party), feminist organizations, anti-colonial movements (such as Puerto Rican independencegroups like the Young Lords), and a variety of organizations that were part of the broader New Left.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover issued directives governing COINTELPRO, ordering FBI agents to « expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, neutralize or otherwise eliminate » the activities of these movements and especially their leaders.
Under Hoover, the agent in charge of COINTELPRO was William C. Sullivan.
Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy personally authorized some of these programs.
Although Kennedy only gave written approval for limited wiretapping of King’s phones « on a trial basis, for a month or so », Hoover extended the clearance so his men were « unshackled » to look for evidence in any areas of King’s life they deemed worthy.